Cities are always changing and San Francisco is far from an exception. But the transformation of The City in the last quarter century from essentially a provincial town that punched above its weight — in regard to culture, left-wing politics, cuisine and views — to an engine of global economic growth has been dramatic.
Nowhere is this transformation more evident than in the housing shortage problem.
Unhoused people in many parts of The City remind us of the problem every day. It’s also present in the form of high rents, which leave many San Franciscans struggling to pay their bills and unable to save money. For others, the housing shortage means long and expensive commutes from further corners of the Bay Area. This all contributes to a problem that San Francisco has been unable to solve.
It also frames the housing discourse — often simplistically described as a battle between the pro-development YIMBYs and the Not In My Backyard NIMBYs.
But what’s important to understand is that the NIMBY movement has deep roots in San Francisco.
Its first antecedent was the Freeway Revolts. Few San Franciscans who are under 60, or who arrived in the last several decades, are familiar with that 20-year period from the early 1950s to the early 1970s when episodic battles were fought to stop city and state proposals to build major freeways along the Bay in the Marina going toward downtown, 19th Avenue, Fell and Oak in the Panhandle and several other sites.
Had those proto-NIMBYs failed, San Francisco today would be a mini-Los Angeles pockmarked by freeways that bisect and destroy neighborhoods, while creating noise and air pollution. That may have been a long time ago, but the political legacy of that important victory runs deep in neighborhood San Francisco politics — and probably saved The City.
But the Freeway Revolt was only the beginning of the neighborhood movement that shaped San Francisco into the city it is today. The Freeway Revolts quickly transformed into the fight against “Manhattanization” — building skyscrapers and other large buildings in and around the financial district.
Together, these movements sought to rebalance political power in San Francisco, which until the 1960s were monopolized by downtown real estate and business interests. The fights against redevelopment in the Western Addition, as well as against more conservative forms of NIMBYism — for example, the resistance to the Youth Campus in the Excelsior led by a 1977 candidate for supervisor named Dan White — also were part of the first decades of the “neighborhood movement.”
These battles between downtown and the neighborhoods were instrumental in preserving much of The City that so many San Francicans, natives and newcomers, value and enjoy.
Today, there are no easy solutions to the housing problem, but there are extreme positions that are unworkable, unrealistic and unhelpful. One extreme might be called the ultra-NIMBY position that calls for adding nary a single unit of market-rate or affordable housing in San Francisco. The mirror extreme position would be to allow for unfettered housing development, turning San Francisco into a kind of Houston on the Pacific.
Neither of these are good ideas, but there is ample middle ground.
There are many ways to chip away at the housing shortage. For example, allowing building owners to add a few stories to some residential buildings or subdivide units are not as dramatic, or impactful, as major new construction and could make a difference. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has addressed this recently through a proposed “fourplex law.” This approach can and should be implemented in all Bay Area counties, not just in San Francisco.
Ultimately, more progress in a combination of new building and changing existing laws is needed to solve the housing problem. But this issue cannot be entirely separated from larger questions about The City itself. The tension between those pushing for economic growth and those who envision San Francisco as not grounded in unlimited economic growth goes back many decades. The housing crisis is the most obvious and glaring symptom of the latest iteration of that tension, and it cannot be understood or addressed without that context.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.